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Hammer-Headed Nails c. 1800 to c. 1825

Cut nails after 1800, Eric Sloan.

A still further examination of cut nails, from dated houses, shows that they may be distinguished into two classes;

  • namely those appearing between c. 1800 and c. 1825, with imperfect or irregular heads, or, more particularly, hammered heads; that is, heads showing the facets of more than one hammer blow, and
  • those appearing after c. 1825, and throughout the following century, with stamped heads, showing level tops impressed by a single blow or stamp.

Information gathered with difficulty from the Patent Office records and books, makes it probable (subject to correction by dated nails) that in general, up to 1825, the nail-cutting machines had not been perfected; in other words, that while after 1825, nail machinery produced cut nails at a single operation, before that time, two machines, run by hand power, but not yet by steam, nor even by water, one to cut, as described above, and another, probably nothing more than a special vise to hold the shank while hand-hammering the head, were used in the manufacture of cut nails.

The hand-cranked machine, for cutting and heading nails at one operation, patented by Nathan Read of Salem, Mass., in 1798 (See model at Essex Institute, Salem, Mass.), was not a success. Neither were any of the other "cutting and heading" machines, or simple "heading" machines, in existence or patented at that time, as is shown by the evidence of the nails themselves, and further in the Diary of Rev. William Bentley, who visited Read's nail works in 1810 (See Essex Institute Historical Collections, April, 1918, page 113), and found that the workmen were then heading nails in the only way thus far successful, namely, by hand,

"as it is found heading is done better by hand than by any machine as yet invented both as to time and good-ness of execution."

Joseph Whitaker (See his manuscript diary in the library of the Bucks County Historical Society) was also thus making cut nails in Philadelphia, from 1809 to 1816-20, by a double operation; namely, cutting the plates with a hand-cranked machine and afterwards hammer-heading the shanks held in a clamp worked by a foot lever.

It further appears, that, at first, since the knife of the cutting machine was set diagonally so as to cross-cut the nail-plate into a tapered slice, the workmen had to turn the plate upside down at each stroke, so as to continue the taper by reversing the cut; and the very earliest cut nails (1800 to c. 1810) prove this fact by the down smear of the knife, round-edged above and sharp below, being reversed on the two opposing cut sides of the nail shank.

They also show, that very early in the nineteenth century, this troublesome turning of the nail-plate was superseded by wriggling or staggering the blade of the cutter during the operation, so as to reverse the taper at each stroke without, turning the nail-plate.

At first, also, in order to dispense with the difficulty of the usual heading, angle-headed (L headed) and headless nails called "brads" were made. But as these latter continued in use for certain purposes (often for floors) until long after the middle of the nineteenth century, their confused evidence should here be thrown out of consideration.

Dating of Old Houses, Henry C. Mercer, SC.D., Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 1923.

The introduction of cut nails dates from the late 16th century with the advent of water-powered 'slitting mills'. After hammering (or, from the late 17th century, rolling) the hot iron into sheets, each sheet was slit into long, square-sectioned bars by rollers which cut like a shears. Bars of the requisite thickness were then made into nails and spikes by 'nailers'. Only the head and the point were forged, so these nails, which were common from the 17th to the early 19th century, can be distinguished from earlier ones by the sharp regular profile of the cut section.

Nails and Wood Screws, The Building Conservation Directory, 1999



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